Public Enemies opens in the Indiana penitentiary, in 1933, convicts in shackles and rough wool suits trudging single-file up and down the yard. The scene changes and a sheriff in plain clothes leads a prisoner across a dried-mud field to the looming dirty grey steel gates of the penitentiary. Somehow Michael Mann’s camerawork makes this grim visa beautiful, yet chillingly cold. The sheriff leads the prisoner into the jail.
And all hell breaks loose.
Public Enemies takes place in the fourth year of the Great depression and the American heartland where the worst effects of the depression are being felt. Businesses closed, men unemployed, families starving. Michael Mann shows us grizzled older men, tired women, real faces etched with real pain. Already there is a veracity about Public Enemies that makes you feel you are in the era, not watching a costume drama.
Economy in ruins, gangsters on a bank robbing spree. Crime is a national embarrassment and a puffed-up J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup at his most self-righteous) announces a war on crime and anoints John Dillinger as public enemy No 1. He appoints agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to take down Dillinger.
Depp and Bale
Johnny Depp as Dillinger is mesmeric, you feel compelled to watch him. By turns charming, quirky and deadly, he gives us a man who knows what the world is and what he wants from it. He gets his kicks from pitting himself against the law. Very clever and more than a little vain, he fancies himself a public hero. He gladly picks up Hoover’s challenge and goes out bank robbing. Depp has never been better than in this movie, never given us as rounded and as human a character, as Dillinger. For all his deadliness we warm to him.
Bale plays agent Purvis with a southern drawl, a quiet, dignified and intense man who is a born hunter. Purvis is one of nature’s noblemen and Bale plays him as brave and wise, a natural leader, and a good and fine American man.
Motion and violence
This is familiar territory for Michael Mann, two great and powerful men, one hunting the other. Bale’s intensity is matched by Depp’s courage and cleverness. Public Enemies wrings every once of tension out of the battle between these two men. It is a game of cat-and-mouse ripped apart by explosions of violence.
For Public Enemies is a bloody movie, as well as an emotional roller-coaster. The shoot-outs are graphic and cruel, with no holds barred. Mann really gets the feeling of the age and both sides shoot to kill. The more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger attitude of modern thrillers is absent here. These are men of their time, when life was cheaper, and they draw their guns to kill. The stakes are very real in this movie and we feel it throughout. Once again Michael Mann puts us in the time.
Mann ratchets up the tension relentlessly. Realising that he is being outfought by the Dillinger gang Purvis prevails upon Hoover to let him use ex-Texas Rangers from the Bureau’s Dallas office. When these men arrive in Chicago we see their faces and they look as if carved out of stone, hard-bitten lawmen to a man. Just watching them walk through the train station to meet Purvis makes us realise that the balance of power has shifted.
Dillinger’s life becomes more complicated when he meets Billie Frechette, a coatcheck girl. As the half-French, half Menominee Indian girl, Marion Cotillard shows her to be totally in love with Dillinger and he with her. Cotillard gives Depp the opportunity to show another side of Dillinger, loving, perceptive and sensitive. But for all of this Cotillard’s Frechette is still a complication and Public Enemies’ sense of danger and foreboding increases every time they are on screen together. Frechette humanises Dillinger but we, the audience, know there is a cost to this tenderness.
Ending the Dillinger story
Public Enemies is remarkable for the way in which it maintains the excitement in a story we already know the end of, or think we do. Dillinger is hunted and history tells us his end. However even at the end, Michael Mann has something new and compelling to show us.
Telling the story
So many things work so well in this movie. The plotting and pacing is really tight, especially the robberies. No one does a bank heist like Michael Mann. All the Mann signatures are here, bags of cash being slid from one crook to another across a marble floor, men with machine guns standing on desks menacing helpless customers, Dillinger telling customers that he has come for the Bank’s money, not theirs. The whole movie is tight, fast, economic with words and characters.
The dialogue is sharp, terse and clever. Here is the single best exchange in the movie, when Dillinger tells Billie Frechette that she is with him now.
Frechette: But I don’t know anything about you!
Dillinger: I like baseball, fast cars, good clothes, movies, whisky, and you.
So a man of good taste, for a professional bank robber…
Tension, mood and atmosphere are perfect in Public Enemies. Michael Mann has perfected the use of his Digital night-shoot camera technology, which he first used in Miami Vice. In Public Enemies he uses this to create night scenes of fearsome intensity. Michael Mann always fills the darkness with terrible menace.
And the cinematography gives us a world that is harsh but incredibly beautiful. The FBI agents dress well and the camera plays on this, using their correct and handsome dress to set them apart from the people they deal with. Some scenes are almost painterly and striking in their use of light and colour.
Public Enemies has a stand-out cast, including actors from previous Michael Mann movies. The ensemble playing is magnificent, and gives depth to every scene. Depp, Cotillard and Bale are superb, but there is also wonderful acting from David Wenhem as Dillinger gang member Harry Pierpoint, Steven Lang as a hard-faced ex-Texas Ranger and a great perfomance from Jason Clarke as Dillinger pal “Red” Hamilton. There is not a bad performance in the movie.
But it is the story of the two protagonists that make this movie so great. There is a terrible intimacy, with the camera often only inches from their faces. Depp in particular, opens up Dillinger in all his hopeless bravery. These are stories of real men, caught up in their stand for what they believe in and what they are.
Public Enemies is more than a gangster story, it touches so many men’s lives. How many men have felt like Purvis, tasked with a responsibility that might ask for more than he can give? A task where, even if he succeeds, it may break his spirit.
And so many of us know Dillinger’s life, risking everything in tackling the world, the sense that time is running out. Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is smart, knows the world is against him, but fights on regardless. Winning on his terms is all that life is.
This is a big movie in so many ways; I believe it will become a classic. Public Enemies has something to say about manhood, courage and why men choose the paths men they do. I was moved by what it had to say. Go see it, Public Enemies is a magnificent experience.
We wrote about Michael Mann previously, here.
The UK trailer for Public Enemies is available here
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